Bridging the knowledge and service gaps impacting vulnerable kids

  • Renée Ficarra, Jacinta Molloy, Dr Rachael Sanders, Dr Corina Modderman and Fiona Harley

Renée Ficarra, Jacinta Molloy, Dr Rachael Sanders, Dr Corina Modderman and Fiona Harley

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La Trobe Rural Health School
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La Trobe Rural Health School is bringing its expertise in connecting multi-disciplinary teams to a very real problem for rural communities. Children in out of home care (OOHC) are some of the community’s most vulnerable members. A new 10-year project in Mildura, which is a first for rural Australia, is integrating child protection and health services to better support these vulnerable children.

Since 2017, the number of Australian children in OOHC (living in foster, kinship or residential care) has grown by 7.3%, with higher rates in rural communities (14.6 per 1000 children) compared to metropolitan areas (6.7 per 1000 children).

La Trobe social work researcher and former child protection practice leader Dr Corina Modderman is evaluating the project’s impact and providing recommendations to strengthen the project and help other rural communities.

Dr Modderman said children in OOHC are more likely to have experienced abuse and neglect, and if not addressed, can lead to long-term developmental delay and chronic physical and mental health issues.

“What makes this problem more pronounced in rural areas is the scarcity of health services and clinicians, which means longer wait times for critical interventions. In many cases, this barrier means issues may not be addressed.”

“We also have workforces that traditionally have different skills and scopes of practice. This can mean that frontline child protection workers, who are trained to identify and protect children from immediate safety risks, may not be as responsive to developmental or health concerns.”

The Mildura project, led by the Department of Families, Fairness, and Housing and Mildura Rural City Council, has placed a registered nurse as a ‘health navigator’ in the child protection team to improve initial health screening and support follow-up assessments.

The health navigator has four key functions:

  • collate the health history of children in OOHC
  • coordinate referrals and individual health plans
  • monitor plan implementation, ensuring timely access
  • liaise between services and build health literacy for child protection staff.

In addition, the project brings all services relevant to children in OOHC together around the table under a single governance approach to improve communication and pathways between GPs, allied health professionals, paediatricians, maternal child health services, child protection and mental health services.

One of the outcomes has been a dedicated OOHC specialist clinic at Mildura Base Public Hospital Specialist Clinic, led by an on-site paediatrician, which ensures that children in OOHC are seen faster and reduces waiting lists.

An initial evaluation by Dr Modderman and colleague Dr Rachel Sanders found that the partnership building has been an effective foundation for building a one-door approach for children in OOHC.  The next phase of review is underway.

Dr Modderman, who regularly works on thorny health issues with practice leaders from La Trobe Rural Health School’s 14 other disciplines, is confident the rolling evaluations will strengthen Mildura’s OOHC multidisciplinary team.

“We are seeing some slow, but positive progress in breaking down those service silos and developing a common language around child health.”

“In rural communities where services are limited and health issues are more complex, it’s critical to work together and learn from each other.’

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Submitted by Dr Susan M. Webster (not verified) on Tue, 12/19/2023 - 14:51

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Great to have an update on such important developmental work Corinna. All credit to the partner organisations for their ongoing commitment. Improving health care systems for children and young people in out-of-home care is so vital in Victoria, especially for those in rural and regional areas without tertiary health services.

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